Spring is here and now is the time to get out and scout for longbeards. The good news is Michigan’s turkey population is pretty strong.
“We have a wild turkey population of about 200,000 birds,” said Al Stewart, the upland game bird specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “Most years, the harvest exceeds 30,000 toms. That is a good number of birds being harvested. Our success rate is about 38 percent. Many hunters in our area head to the woods and many of them tag a bird.”
The 2014 season should be a good one for Michigan turkey hunting enthusiasts all over the state.
“The 2013 hatch appears to be a good one,” said Stewart. “Over the last several years, we have had decent hatches. I think the 2013 hatch was better than some of the previous hatches. When we have a good hatch, we usually have a good hunting season for the next few years. This should be consistent with the 2014 season. Of course some places around the state hold more birds than others, but overall, the entire state offers great turkey hunting.”
Michigan has a one-bird limit in the spring. The bird must have a beard. Currently, 83 counties offer spring hunting, and the season is well over a month in length, giving hunters plenty of opportunities to get out and hunt.
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Many units within the state require hunters to put in for a draw hunt. Hunters who want to ensure getting a tag can apply for the guaranteed hunt, which runs for most of May and encompasses most of the state.
“The 234 hunt, which takes place in May, is probably the best overall opportunity for hunters who want to have plenty of time to hunt,” Stewart said. I buy this tag every year and have had plenty of success in the woods.
Greg Abbas from A-Way Hunting Products has had success in the field. Abbas is an accomplished hunter and call maker who has won the state turkey calling championship six times. It is safe to say he knows a few things about spring turkey hunting and where to find them. Abbas has guided hundreds of hunters over the years throughout Michigan and his success rate exceeds 90 percent.
“There is lots of public land in Michigan. Much of it offers great turkey hunting. Many hunters think that it is nearly impossible to tag a tom on public land, but over the years, most of my guiding took place on public land. Public land hunting can be very productive. Hunters will need to do plenty of work ahead of time.”
Abbas spends a lot of time in the weeks and months leading up to spring turkey season scouting his favorite locations so that when opening day arrives, he knows where to be. “Many hunters like to walk or drive and call on the main roads, and although you can locate birds that way, the best way to tag a bird is to know where the bird is roosting.
“I typically go in before the season opens, dressed in camouflage, and scout and watch birds to see where they are roosting and where they are heading after they fly down. On opening day, I like to be in the area they are going to. It’s much easier to call a bird in when you are where he wants to be instead of calling him to a spot where he doesn’t usually go.
“I’ve learned that most roosting locations I like to key in on while scouting are near a river of some type. Many of the places I hunt are near water because gobblers like being on a ridge over water. In many cases, they will roost on the same limb night after night if they aren’t pressured and the weather is stable.”
Over the years, most of the guiding that Abbas did was in Gladwin County on state land. “There is lots of public land in Gladwin County. Any hunter who is willing to work hard for a turkey isn’t going to have much difficulty finding them on public land in Gladwin County.
“Many hunters will be able to find birds in the Au Sable State Forest. Early-season hunters will likely be able to find lots of birds near the roads and two tracks and likely be able to cover a lot of ground scouting without having to leave a vehicle.
“As the season progresses, the birds go deeper into the woods and become harder to find. They are still in the area; hunters will just have to work for the bird a little harder.
“Over the years, I’ve learned that birds typically have a few different roost areas. When the weather is windy and rainy, the birds often roost in the pines. They usually have a roost area near the creeks and rivers and often during the late season, they will roost deep in the forest in an attempt to escape the hunting pressure. When the late season arrives, I typically look for the birds on the high oak forest ridges where they will roost and walk the high ridges between one area and the next,”
The Gladwin Unit is in Area E if you are interested in applying.
The great news is even though the Au Sable State Forest is public land, it is big enough for all the hunters that hunt there. “This area receives some pressure, but not much when you consider it is thousands of acres,” said Abbas. “Hunters may come across other people, but if a hunter gets off the beaten path, they will likely be alone.”
In Area K near Manistee, there is another large forest that Abbas enjoys hunting.
“The Manistee National Forest offers great turkey hunting near the Big Manistee River. One reason the hunting is so good is because there are a lot of large forested areas for the birds, and many creeks and rivers for the birds to roost over. The Bear Creek and Pine Creek flow into the Big Manistee River.
All the creeks and tributaries that drain into the river are awesome places for the birds to roost. Turkeys love tall ridges with mature trees near the banks of the river to roost in. This allows them to easily pitch down to a high ridge in the morning.”
One area that people don’t think about hunting that offers great hunting, especially for those who like hunting in big woods, is Area M in Menominee County in the Upper Peninsula. “When people think about the Upper Peninsula, the last thing they think about is turkeys,” said Abbas. “Most people think about deer hunting.
“The area holds lots of birds, there is little hunting pressure, and there is a lot of public land in the Upper Peninsula. We found many turkeys around the Menominee River. Hunters looking for a wilderness experience where they can walk and call all day without running into many hunters should consider making the road trip to the Upper Peninsula,”
The nice thing about hunting Area M is there are typically plenty of tags available for anyone who wants to hunt. Many Michigan hunters are deterred from hunting that area because it is so far away from home.
Another area in Northern Michigan that holds several birds and that doesn’t see much hunting pressure is Area J in the Northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Over the years, I have hunted in that area dozens of times. Emmet County and Cheboygan County offer great spring hunting.
The early hunt, which takes place the third week of April, is often a little iffy. The winter snow often is still on the ground during April and it isn’t uncommon for those counties to receive snow in April, so the birds are often tightlipped during the early season. In my opinion, the best time to hunt Area J is in mid-May during the 234 hunt.
A hunter can buy the tag over the counter and hunt on public and private land in Area J. Area J has a lot of public land and I’ve found that getting permission to hunt on private land isn’t very difficult. The biggest problem with hunting Area J is that the turkey population is sometimes not very high.
“The birds in the northern portion of the state have a difficult time making it through winter because they have such long winters,” Stewart observed. “That said, when we have mild winters, the population is usually good. Many people up north feed the birds near their homes (Check wildlife feeding regulations before feeding!) to help get them through winter. I think the 2014 season in Area J should be good because we have had a few good hatches in recent years.”
According to Al Stewart, the most turkey-rich area in Michigan is the southern portion of the state. The winters are milder and the habitat is great for turkeys in that area of the state. The bad news for some hunters is that much of the southern portion of the state is private land.
For hunters who have access to private land, there is a tag just for you! The ZZ tag is one that can be used only on private land in roughly a third of the state, but only in the southern portion of the state. The tag is good for several weeks, which gives hunters plenty of time to scout, locate and hunt birds.
Drawing the tag isn’t difficult, unlike some public-land tags. Getting permission to hunt spring turkeys isn’t very difficult if you knock on enough doors. I’ve tagged several birds over the years with the ZZ tag.
I especially enjoy bowhunting with that tag when hunting smaller parcels of land in suburbia. Some great hunting can be had with the ZZ tag on small parcels. Many toms living in suburbia have extremely long beards and die of old age. Hunting those birds can be fun and exciting.
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The turkey hunting success rate in Michigan is higher than in many other states. With our unique tag system, every hunter can have an opportunity to chase longbeards if he wants to. With the 2013 hatch looking like it went well, hunters should be able to find plenty of lovesick gobblers this spring in Michigan. For more information about the 2014 spring turkey season visit the Web site at www.michigan.gov/turkey.